February 24, 2013
I READ with alarm the article headlined, Armed guards seen as key to safety in Pa. schools. (The Times Leader, Feb. 14). Media coverage usually focuses on rare but dramatic events at schools, and it is difficult to get perspective and keep it. In reality, schools are among the safest places a child could possibly be. Every day over 55 million children go safely to school without any incident. The chances of being hit by lightning are several times greater than a child ever experiencing a dramatic violent event at school. Wyoming Valley has had no such incident in it's' history over 200 years.
Armed guards and similar law enforcement approaches in public schools are not necessary, or helpful, but instead usually make schools worse. These tactics contribute to psychologically unhealthy school environments, which is dangerous. Think about how it feels to be a kid and go to school in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, with more and more security cameras, metal detectors, armed guards, drug-sniffing dogs, personal searches, and bulletproof windows.
One local school district superintendent told me that he used a consultant who is also responsible for security at the White House. It didn't seem to even occur to him that he could possibly be hyper vigilant.
In overreacting to dramatic rare events many schools are using more and more tactics and procedures borrowed from the prison systems, creating toxic environments socially and psychologically. Research shows that kids feel the most unsafe in schools that use the most of these purported security approaches. It is important to realize that there is no data or evidence at all to suggest that these approaches are effective. It is not sensible to use tactics that have no proven value that come with such a high cost. Most parents don't want their kids to attend schools that are like prison environments.
Northeastern Pennsylvania saw a decade ago that bad things could happen when people overestimate the degree and likelihood of school violence and become too afraid. Our community quietly and blindly accepted massive incarceration of juveniles by then Judge Mark Ciavarella. He was proud of it and was praised for it by much of the local media at the time. No therapists or schools objected or raised doubt.
The same type of fear and unquestioning endorsement of counterproductive law enforcement tactics is rearing its' head again. Parents need to demand healthy school environments from their school boards and superintendents, and resist harmful contamination of the school atmosphere.
School boards and superintendents also need a lot of support in resisting pressure for excessive security measures, and proactively seeking more training for teachers, who should remain the respected authority in schools. The presence of police in schools distorts the proper relationship between students and teachers, and ultimately undermines teachers' power and authority. Teachers need to demonstrate that they are in charge of the school environment and that it is a safe place where positive socialization, school spirit, and nurturing occur.
In that article, State Senator Lisa Baker spoke with a voice of reason and wisdom pointing out that there are other remedies. Michael Silsby, superintendent of the Wallenpaupack Area School District was also correct in saying that schools need to create open and supportive environments. Indeed, research shows that the most reliable predictor of violence in schools is the level of respect shown between students, and between students and teachers.
Schools need more counselors, as the average ratio of students to counselors to students is several hundred to one. Enlightened schools teach kids how to communicate, resolve conflict, and solve problems. These skills better serve kids and their communities. Schools need to focus on creating respectful and healthy environments, which in the end, make the safest of schools.
In overreacting to dramatic rare events many schools are using more and more tactics and procedures borrowed from the prison systems, creating toxic environments socially and psychologically.
Robert E. Griffin is a psychologist in Forty Fort.